Social Commerce: Revolutionising the Online Retail Experience

By: Si Ying Wang, 2CV

The standard and ´traditional´ online shopper journey is a familiar one—consumers use Google as their starting point for product discovery, consulting various sources, before finally making a purchase decision via seller-owned channels like, or marketplaces. 

However, these days, the channel to purchase has pivoted towards a more consolidated singular path, thanks to the rise of ‘social commerce’—the usage of social media platforms like Instagram, TikTok and Pinterest as such channels for commerce. The onset of social commerce is in part driven by the surge in social media users worldwide, with 58% of the global population being active users who spend an average of 2.27 hours per day on social media. Furthermore, 21% of consumers who use social media to shop use TikTok ´all of the time,´ with YouTube coming in second at 17% and Instagram at 16.4%.  

A closer look into the current social commerce landscape leads us to better understand the underlying principles of experience behind this ´new normal,´ outlined below into three key learnings: 

Experience principle #1: Make it frictionless

The zenith of social commerce experiences is a seamless shopping journey contained within a singular social platform. This one-stop-shop experience is underpinned by the emerging consumer behaviour of using social media as the primary means for product discovery and research. According to GWI, 48% of Gen Zs surveyed mentioned they mainly use social networks when looking for brand or product information, compared to 44% who mentioned they mainly use search engines. 

This trend is not only due to the visually rich nature of search results on social platforms compared to traditional web searching; but also a product of an endless, ‘open-ended’ way, of browsing through scrolling—an interaction familiar to users. 

Example: TikTok’s frictionless end-to-end purchase journey  

Image credits: Judydoll

TikTok’s shoppable content is directly integrated within users’ organic feed for easy browsing, enabling sellers to showcase products in a visually dynamic manner to demonstrate benefits ‘in action’. Product links included in the content then lead consumers directly to the sellers’ in-app storefront. Within storefronts, consumers can refer to full product information before carting out. Once purchase is made, updates regarding order status are provided directly on the app for easy tracking.

Any effort needed for switching between platforms can be reduced by leveraging the behaviour of using social media for discovery to create an end-to-end journey spanning discovery to checkout. That said, brands must be careful not to over-index ´commerce-centricity´ over ´social-centricity.´ A case in point is Instagram’s ‘Shop’ tab—which was originally introduced as a shortcut on the app’s bottom navigation, but was eventually removed. The execution of this design could have fallen short since the ‘Shop’ tab was not embedded as part of an existing social-centric user journey, but instead a standalone commerce-centric feature—which may have increased the cognitive load required for context switching.      

Experience principle #2: Make it engaging

In the ´attention economy,´ only truly compelling content will succeed in attracting paying customers and repeat purchases. This speaks to the importance of ‘shoppertainment’ —engagement-based content that seeks to entertain more than sell—a bedrock for successful social commerce experiences. According to TikTok, 71% of respondents find ‘not forcing decision-making’ an important attribute in content that engages.  

Brands can establish meaningful relationships through the right content with the help of creators—be they individuals or influencers—within the platform’s communities. Creator content often contains more authenticity due to their perceived credibility, which can create a ‘halo’ effect underpinned by social proof, which then extends to product reviews or recommendations. According to TikTok, 67% of users have made a purchase after encountering a product in a creator’s video.  

Example: Engaging video content by creators

Image credits: Germaine Leonora (left), Monica (right) 

An example of an engaging content—a ‘day in the life of…’ video, which starts by captivating attention with a creator’s presence, before weaving in products & benefits as part of the overall story. Utilising a ‘show, not sell’ approach that increases resonance towards brands and their products.

Experience principle #3: Make it relevant

Another good tenet lies in hyper-personalisation stemming from an in-depth understanding of consumers’ behaviour and preferences. Social platforms provide curated recommendations that are highly relevant to users, thanks to big data and AI-driven algorithms. 

The existence of various communities of interest within platforms—whether broad or specific—also makes for a good starting point for targeting different customer segments, and for those within communities to connect with one another. By airing content that aligns with user interests, platforms create an environment where consumers are exposed to brands/products they are more likely to, well, like! This spontaneity in product discovery could potentially drive the frequency of impulse purchases, therefore serving as an engine for customer acquisition.  

Example: TikTok’s algorithm-based “For you” content feed  

Image credits: Mega Digital (left), Judydoll (left)

TikTok’s algorithm uses factors such as user habits, content preferences and past behaviour to determine the type of content, (including commerce-centric ones such as shoppable content) or livestream content shown natively within user’s feeds.  

Looking ahead

With the market estimated to reach 2 trillion USD by 2025, growing by around 18% per year between 2021 and 2025, social commerce is quickly emerging as a model that brands and retailers need to embrace—with a number of early adopters already doing this. 

As the playing field levels with the advent of social commerce, brands should keep in mind the three principles outlined above when it comes to the design of these experiences in order to differentiate and secure a stronger foothold in the market. 

This article was first published in the Q4 2023 edition of Asia Research Media.

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